June was a month of milestones for President Barack Obama, including a major Supreme Court decision that secured health-care reform, his signature legislative achievement. And in the coming months, the president will have another opportunity to add a line to his legacy. Librarian of Congress James Billington has announced that he will retire at the end of 2015. Obama will get to appoint a new librarian of Congress, the first in 28 years.
Perhaps understandably, nominating a new national librarian may not be seen by the public and the press as something that could affect the president’s legacy. Certainly, it is not on the level of a Supreme Court nomination. But appointing a librarian of Congress is fairly rare. And though the term of the librarian of Congress is not defined, in modern times the job has basically become a lifetime appointment. There have only been 13 national librarians in U.S. history, dating back to Thomas Jefferson, who established the Library of Congress in 1802. And there have been just six since 1900, a period during which the publishing, film, music and tech industries took shape, and our cultural output exploded.
Make no mistake, this time around the appointment is a pretty big deal. The next librarian of Congress will be the first national librarian appointed in the digital information age. And whoever assumes the role could have a major impact on the future of libraries in America, and on the nation’s information and intellectual property policies for a very, very long time.
Without question, much has changed in the library, publishing, and information worlds since Ronald Reagan appointed the now 86-year-old James Billington in 1987. And the immediate reaction to Billington’s pending retirement underscores just how much the world has changed, and why the pressure is on Obama. Far from getting the “gold watch” treatment, Billington’s announcement has amplified the voices of critics who have long complained that the Library of Congress requires not only a new leader, but fundamental changes.
A blistering June 10 article in the New York Times described a Library of Congress with “millions of items piled in overflowing buildings and warehouses” and pointed to “widespread weaknesses” in Billington’s management of the library’s technology resources. Among Billington’s critics quoted in the piece are former Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton and former University of Michigan librarian Paul Courant. “One expects the Library of Congress to be a leader,” Courant told the Times. “But with regard to digitization and the use of digital technologies, the library has basically been a bust.”
Darnton agreed and had even called for Billington’s resignation before he finally announced his retirement. “The Library of Congress just sat on the sidelines while this digital revolution took place,” Darnton said.
Indeed, the appointment of the next librarian of Congress was a hot topic of conversation at last week’s American Library Association Annual conference in San Francisco. ALA leaders confirmed that they were discussing the position in high-level meetings. And just before the conference opened, outgoing ALA president Courtney Young penned a public letter to Obama offering input from the library community and urging the appointment of a professional librarian to the post, which has often been occupied by nonlibrarians like Billington, who is a Cold War historian. In fact, there hasn’t been a librarian leading the Library of Congress in 61 years, since Lawrence Quincy Mumford retired in 1954.
“The Library of Congress is facing a historic opportunity to lead our knowledge society into a productive 21st century,” Young states in her letter to Obama, adding that the appointment comes at a critical time not only for the Library of Congress but “for our society, and our nation’s libraries.” ALA urged the president to appoint a librarian with experience leading a major library, expertise in the management of digital assets, and an understanding of scholarly research and scholarly communication, as well as “vision, entrepreneurial spirit, and a commitment to collaboration.”
And librarians are not the only people paying attention. At last week’s ALA conference, I spoke with Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about the role. McSherry said that EFF is preparing to issue comments in the coming weeks pertaining to the next librarian of Congress and that she too believes the next librarian of Congress should be... well, a librarian.
“I think the librarian of Congress can be an important public servant, and an advocate,” McSherry said. “I don’t think the one we have has been that. But I do think the librarian of Congress could be powerful in that sense.”
A June 18 article in the Atlantic echoed McSherry, noting that the next appointee could hold “a potentially transformative” role: the first librarian of Congress to “truly embrace the Internet as core to the library’s mission.”
Of course, therein lies the rub: the Internet lies at the heart of many a political and business dogfight these days, and it frequently puts librarians at odds with content industries and other traditional stakeholders in our information economy. And despite having the word librarian in the title, the librarian of Congress is, when all is said and done, a political appointment, subject to Senate approval. What could possibly go wrong?
For librarians who would like to see the librarian of Congress take more of a leadership role on critical library issues, consider the long list of litigation, legislation, and policy fights on which the library community has weighed in over the last decade. For example, the library community voiced strong opposition to the ill-fated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was backed by the entertainment industry. The library community actively supports open and public access to federally funded research, which is opposed by the publishing community. The library community has beat the drum against the Patriot Act, and for privacy reforms. And for those who have criticized the library’s slow pace of digitization, imagine the fallout if the Library of Congress had joined forces with their academic library counterparts who partnered with Google to scan out-of-print books for the HathiTrust, which ultimately wound up in federal court. Can anyone see a politically appointed librarian of Congress weighing in for the public—or worse, against the public—on any of these issues, without facing political retribution?
Consider, too, the most recent legislative proposal to remove the Copyright Office from under the purview of the Library of Congress and to establish it as an independent agency. Everyone agrees that the Copyright Office needs to be better funded and technologically upgraded. But while publishers and authors have publicly supported the idea of an independent Copyright Office, the library community and Internet businesses such as Google and Amazon have come out against it.
Wherever the next Librarian of Congress comes down on the issue of the Copyright Office, someone will be disappointed. And then of course, there is the even thornier subject of copyright reform.
Politics as Usual
For his part, Obama has shown that he somewhat understands what is at stake for the next generation of Americans. Last month, he visited a library in Baltimore to talk about e-books for children. He faced down political opposition on Net Neutrality. And he wants to invest billions in broadband for schools and libraries nationwide. But for all the promise a savvy new librarian of Congress might offer, it is hard not to think that, ultimately, we will wind up with half a loaf—that is, a librarian who first and foremost, will be subject to the politics of the office. That is, unless the president chooses boldly, come what may.
Is it possible that a political fight might actually break out over the next librarian of Congress? “I could see that happening,” McSherry says, admitting that some of the people she’d like to see in the job “would drive some people ape.” But, she adds, it doesn’t need to be that way: “I think there are any number of people who shouldn’t be particularly controversial and who would really do well.”